I’d like to plug the January issue of Book Links (now an ancillary publication with Booklist) and my “Everyday Poetry” column about poet and author Margarita Engle. This time last year in Book Links, Jeannine Atkins offered a fine introduction to three books by Margarita Engle-- The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, and Tropical Secrets including research suggestions for the classroom. In my column, I followed up with more info and curricular connections. Here’s an excerpt:
Margarita Engle burst onto the scene only 5 years ago and has already garnered multiple Pura Belpre recognitions (another one THIS year!) and a Newbery honor distinction. Her work thus far is a unique amalgamation of spare and powerful free verse, unheralded historical subjects, vividly realized settings, and multiple contradictory points of view. She has fused history, poetry, and biography to tell authentic stories about real people from the past. Her work lends itself to cross-curricular applications in history, science, and language arts, in particular.
Her unique style provides opportunities for young people to connect with her work in a variety of ways. The use of many viewpoints lends itself to dramatic reading ala readers theater. (Her first three works are also available in audiobook form.) Her use of imagery and distinctive settings begs for artistic interpretation in drawing, painting, collage, etc. The history and geography nuggets may prompt further digging into nonfiction and web-based resources. Put it all together and students can create digital trailers using archival photos, period music, and evocative voiceovers to bring her works to life.
So far, Engle has authored five novels in verse beginning with The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, illustrated by Sean Qualls. The life of nineteenth-century Cuban slave Juan Francisco Manzano is portrayed from multiple points of view in this complex and gritty poetry-story. Pair this book with other stories of enslaved peoples in studying the history of the Americas. It offers interesting parallels to Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones or M. T. Anderson’s two The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing novels for older readers.
Her verse “biography,” The Surrender Tree, features Cuba’s legendary healer Rosa la Bayamesa, told from multiple points of view during several wars for Cuba’s independence in the 1850-1899. It is a compelling narrative of escape and hiding, heroism and healing set in the lush landscape of Cuba’s jungles and caves across three wars fought by natives and fueled by outsiders. It offers an interesting counterpoint to books about the Civil War in the U.S during this same period, such as the classic Bull Run by Paul Fleischman, also told from multiple viewpoints or J. Patrick Lewis’s poetry collection, The Brother’s War: Civil War Voices in Verse.
In Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, Engle shifts to Cuba in 1939 and the contrasting, interweaving paths of a Jewish boy who is a refugee from Germany and a daughter of a corrupt Cuban official and their growing awareness of the conflicted, adult world. Follow up with other stories about refugees such as the popular Swedish novel, The Faraway Island by Annika Thor, translated by Linda Schenk, or the memoir in verse, The Year of Goodbyes by Debbie Levy, or the picture book, Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan by Mary Williams, or the contemporary nonfiction work, Children of War, Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis.
Next up: The Firefly Letters; A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba, based on the diaries and letters of Swedish suffragist Fredrika Bremer. It is set in 1851 and is built upon three female perspectives: a Swedish feminist, a slave from the Congo, and a privileged Cuban girl, weaving together notions of freedom and choice, culture and family. Engle’s focus on the roles of girls and women against a backdrop of cultural expectations and economic limitations parallels many of the struggles in another novel in verse, Crossing Stones by Helen Frost and for older readers, the novel Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman.
Margarita has a new book coming out this year, another historical novel set in Cuba—but going further back several hundred years. In Hurricane Dancers, The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck, set in the early 1500’s, Engle’s protagonist is Quebrado, named by the sailors, el quebrado—half islander, half outsider, “a broken one,” a child of a Taíno mother and Spanish father. He navigates the “words and worlds” between his mother’s Taíno Indian language and his father’s Spanish after a devastating hurricane and shipwreck. Michael Dorris’ historical fiction novel, Morning Girl, is set in this same time period, also in a Taíno village and offers another interesting native perspective. Or look for factual informational books about hurricanes like Hurricanes by Seymour Simon or for more poetry by poets of the Caribbean such as Monica Gunning, Lynn Joseph and James Berry.
What a powerful poetic voice, inspiring Latina writer, and distinctive ambassador for Cuba’s history. A “poet unit” focused on the works of Margarita Engle will yield a model of rigorous research, sensory description, elements of memoir, mastery of perspective, and elegant writing. Her treatment of the “true story” is eloquent and engaging, balancing the rigors of researching primary sources with the gift for telling a gripping story—all with a poet’s heart.
MARGARITA’S NOVELS IN VERSE
Engle, Margaret. 2006. The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. New York: Holt.
Engle, Margarita. 2008. The Surrender Tree. New York: Holt.
Engle, Margarita. 2009. Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. New York: Holt.
Engle, Margarita. 2010. The Firefly Letters; A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba. Henry Holt.
Engle, Margarita. 2011. Hurricane Dancers; The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck. Henry Holt.
Be sure to check out this January issue of Book Links which also includes a previously unpublished poem by Margarita, free for teacher and librarian use. The accompanying poem, “Quietly,” is a lovely tribute to her mother and her mother’s influence on Margarita’s own memories.
MINI INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Margarita was kind enough to respond to several interview questions as I was working on this article. I think you’ll find her answers fascinating!
SV: You seem to be drawn to the stories of “real” people from history. Why do you choose to tell their stories in poetry, rather than prose? Do you also rely on exhaustive research to get your details correct? Can you describe your research process?
---Margarita: I am haunted by stories about people who make hopeful decisions in situations that seem hopeless. The verse novel form allows me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence. I need to learn the facts and figures of history, but I don’t want to clutter my books with information. My goal is an uncrowded page that flows easily and quickly, without intimidating reluctant readers.
Researching real people and historical events requires obscure references. I start with recent publications, and work my way back in time by searching for references listed in bibliographies. When I find a diary, I feel like I’ve won a prize, because first person accounts offer emotional aspects along with the details of daily life. Since rare books are not usually available in a digital form, I depend on interlibrary loan, an amazing service that gives me access to University collections and the Library of Congress.
SV: Conditions of war and armed conflict are often an important part of your books. What parallels do you see across those historical events (and today)?
---Margarita: Peace is the attraction, not war. I exist in the space between two hostile countries, Cuba and the U.S., so the interface between cultures fascinates me. In Hurricane Dancers, I wrote about the first encounter between my Cuban Indian ancestors and my Caribbean pirate ancestors. I hope my books offer empathy. The Poet Slave of Cuba is about the injustice of slavery and the yearning for literacy. The Surrender Tree shows a small country’s desire for independence from powerful nations. Tropical Secrets is about the plight of refugees. The Firefly Letters portrays women who are regarded as property. These are all ongoing situations throughout the world. They are topics that are relevant today.
SV: Presenting multiple points of view seems to be a hallmark of your works. How do you choose and balance those perspectives?
---Margarita: Giving voices to characters I admire feels natural, but it’s a struggle to let the ones I detest have their say. When I wrote The Surrender Tree, I really didn’t want to let the slave hunter speak. I had to force myself to write his voice, but he was part of the story, so it had to be done. I’m currently working on a shorter novel in verse with only one voice, inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. She struggled with dyslexia, so I am dedicating the book to reluctant readers. Also, my picture book, Summer Birds, uses a single voice. I think it is a function of the complexity of the story.
SV: You create such a pungent sense of place in your writing with flora and fauna, food and landscape coming vividly to life. Is that an intentional counterpoint to the vivid description of war, death, and disease you also portray?
---Margarita: I’m an agronomist and botanist, as well as a hiker and birdwatcher. I love the outdoors. I love wilderness. I can’t imagine writing in any other way. Tropical landscapes are constantly bursting with life and death. Everything grows fast, and everything rots. It’s a setting filled with fragrance and stench. It can only be described with all five senses on high alert. Your question about counterpoint is interesting, because for centuries, Cuban writers have portrayed a striking blend of natural beauty and moral corruption. It may seem surrealistic, but it’s actually a completely realistic image of life in the tropics.
SV: Several of your characters serve as translators in their stories and language plays a pivotal role in the characters’ relationships. Would you care to elaborate on the why and how of that element?
---Margarita: My parents met, fell in love, and got married without speaking the same language. I was born and raised in my father’s hometown of Los Angeles, but my Cuban mother taught me Spanish while I was little, and when we spent summers in Cuba, I was immersed in Spanish. Growing up bilingual was a formative experience. I am always aware of the different ways of thinking that come with a language. For instance, in Spanish we say we dream ‘with’ someone, instead of dreaming ‘about’ them. In English we say we ‘fly’ from coast to coast, but in Spanish people can’t fly. They have to ‘go by airplane.’ Language is a magic window. It lets you glimpse the human mind.
I can’t wait to see what Margarita writes next…
And be sure to stop by Tara's for the Poetry Friday gathering at A Teaching Life.
Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2011. All rights reserved.